Written by Julie Higginbotham, Senior Case Coordinator, Mecklenburg County CDSA
Well, we started off our last Table Talk Wednesday event of 2014 with record-low temperatures the night before here in Charlotte, but we still ended up with new faces and a great conversation! Elizabeth Rodriguez, CBRS Provider with Dreamweavers, helped us get started with Diane McClung, Sr. Case Coordinator with the CDSA, as we began discussing boundaries when working with families. The group was reminded that, while we all have general guidelines from our respective agencies that cover the big no-no’s when it comes to professional boundaries, we all end up in one situation or another where we’re thinking to ourselves, “What should I do/say now?” Here are some of the scenarios that popped up in the conversation, and they all have more than one perspective to consider……
- Birthday Parties – We often get invited to birthday parties for the little ones we serve, particularly for third birthdays when kids are leaving the Infant-Toddler Program. For some families, it’s quite the celebration, but for others, it’s harder because we’ve been in their homes and doing a lot to support the family and child. What’s our role in this scenario? Some people shared that they deal with this by simply stating that their agencies don’t allow them to attend those parties, and another said that if she goes, it would have to be after the child turned three and was no longer in the program. Others discussed politely declining due to other conflicts when possible, and still others might go regardless of the timing. A main issue here is distinguishing us as professional supports, not so much as close friends just because we’re in the families’ homes and are getting to know them on a pretty personal level.
- Social Media – OK, this one was a doozy! When this was first discussed, the group talked about how we don’t always censor things we put on Facebook (or insert any other social media platform to meet your own viewpoint), and we don’t always want families to get a view into our lives outside of visits in their homes. There are ways to get around not accepting a friend request from a family if you don’t feel comfortable with it, such as stating that you aren’t online much, or that you genuinely don’t feel that it’s a boundary that you’d like to cross. But then it went a step further to “friending” other colleagues – do you want them to see your personal life, and do you want to see theirs? What if they have “friended” a family that you both support….now that family can potentially see your info as well. Families are connected to each other in all kinds of ways – you never know where your information can go once it’s out there on the internet. We can adjust our own security settings, but we can’t control what other people do with the information we post. Some people talked about accepting friend requests after a child turns three years old and is no longer in the program, but if there’s another baby down the line that is eligible for the program, that can be awkward. There was so much more around this topic – see why I called it a doozy?!? We can what-if ourselves silly, and that just goes to show that it takes a lot of thought and consideration before engaging in social media contact with families we serve.
- Gifts – This one was good timing as we head into the holiday season, and at first, it seemed to be a little more clear for the group since professional agencies sometimes give more specific criteria around this one, such as how much the gift costs. It can get a little sticky, though, because we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, and we have to be aware of how gifts can affect our relationships. One person said that using common sense is key – what does the gift mean? Is it a thank-you, a small token of the family’s appreciation, or something else? A few folks talked about families who had given personalized gifts that were made specifically for them, or families who were offended because someone didn’t accept a gift. While it’s important to always be gracious, there are times when it’s just not appropriate to accept a gift from a family.
- Cultural Differences and Expectations – This is something we encounter with every single family because each family has its own set of cultural differences and expectations (remember our Rules to Engagement – It’s Not Just a Language Barrier?). Some families have some expectations that stand out a bit more than others, though. For example, some families expect that you will have something to eat and drink when you are a guest in their home, even though you’re there as a professional support. They might not even ask, or if you decline, they may give it to you anyway, or even send it with you out the door. Some folks talked about ways to be creative with the “no,” such as stating that they’re on a diet, have allergies, aren’t hungry or just ate, etc. Others talked about not wanting to risk being offensive and accepting it with many thanks. As for the boundary piece, one line seemed to lie in the intent and how much it could potentially take away from the visit. We have to think about each family individually and make the best decisions possible when it comes to respecting cultural expectations, as well as our own personal and professional boundaries.
- Sharing Personal Information – Different professionals have different boundaries, especially as it comes to personal information. This covers everything from whether or not you give a family your cell phone number to talking about your own family during visits. Just like knowing the family’s intent as boundary lines approach, you have to consider your own intent as you’re sharing personal information. For example, some families want to know whether or not you have children as they’re getting to know you in your home. You can decide how to share that information, but you also need to be careful if you find yourself talking about your kids during visits without much content that supports the IFSP or good coaching interactions. If you are giving out your cell phone number, have you established work hours when you can be expected to return a call or text, especially if one comes in at 8:00 at night? There are parts of this that apply to establishing a rapport, but others than can start to inch over those boundary lines quicker than you might think.
- Seeing Families in Public – Because we support families in all of the nooks and crannies of our respective areas, we are bound to run into a family out in the community at one time or another. It is important to remember a family’s right to confidentiality by keeping greetings casual and general. One way to handle this is to establish the boundary on the front end when services are just starting. There are multiple times to talk about confidentiality as we are getting our consents signed and reviewing Child and Family Rights. One person talked about what she says to families in the event that they run across each other in public – it’s the family’s right to approach her, not the other way around. Also, if she’s out with her own family and one of her kids asks who the parent is, she just says that the parent a friend and leaves it at that. If the family chooses to share why they’re connected to you, they may do so, but it shouldn’t ever come from the provider. We want to respect a family’s space, especially between visits, but we also want to make sure that we don’t appear to be rude. A smile and a nod can be just enough.
With all of this in mind, here are a few quick tips to think about when you have that alarm going off in your head that says there’s a boundary line coming up soon:
- Remember that you are potentially setting a precedence the first time you come across a boundary line with a family, so proceed with caution.
- You should always seek out guidance from supervisors (and even other team members when appropriate) whenever you’re in a tough situation – talking it through can help you make the best choice and think about ways to handle similar situations in the future.
- Some families may have a history of not having their boundaries respected, so they aren’t sure how this works with us. It might be something new to them as you work to set your professional boundaries, so tread lightly as you move forward.
- Maintaining confidentiality needs to be #1 on the list when you’re thinking about interactions with families.
Boundaries are a tricky thing when it comes to working with families because we’re in their homes and working hard to get to know them so we can be supportive. We have to find ways, though, to balance that with maintaining professional relationships in the best way possible. Each family is different, and the line may be in a different place depending on each family’s needs. How about you? When have you been in a situation where you’ve had to draw the line, and how did it work out?
As you can see, we’re never without deep thoughts when we have our Table Talk Wednesday events, and we’re taking a breather in December to gear up into the new year as we meet to talk about what happens when we wonder, Are They Just Not That Into Me?